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Psychological benefit of viewing the body on the part of the bereaved


I'd like to know your views on whether or not viewing the body has psychological benefit on the part of the bereaved. I anticipate your reply as to benefits of seeing the deceased in a state of peaceful repose, especially if death was the result of a long and debilitating illness, but I was wondering if you could offer another view. Is it very much dependent on the person, do you think? For example, my aunt saw her friend in the chapel of rest and sorely regrets it - "it does not look like him" was I think her comment. Also, in the case of traumatic death, road accident and the such, do you still see a viewing as being useful?

You have asked an excellent and involved question. I can best answer it by giving you a short history of viewing, why it is important to some people and how to make sure that it is appropriate in each individual case.

Years ago, when families and friends lived near each other, viewing was far less involved that it is today. People were often born at home and died at home as a part of the normal life experience in a family. In those cases where someone died in an accident, most of their family and friends would have been with them in the days prior to their death and many of them would have been involved in some aspect of preparing them for burial.

Today we live in a world that is very different. Our society "protects" us from life experience by limiting our contact with births and deaths by hospital rules and regulations. Where funeral preparations were once done in the home (my great grandmother was embalmed and placed in her casket before leaving here home) this is now all done in a special facility regulated by OSHA for the protection of the public health. Families and friends are now often scattered about the country (and sometimes the world). We see each other far less often and sometimes count on weddings or funerals to bring families together. As a result, it may have been sometime since many of the people at a funeral saw the deceased, and seeing the body may be a factor in their indeed accepting that this person has died and beginning to recover from the loss.

Some people can accept the reality of a death just by being told that an individual has died. Other people seem to begin to recover faster by actually seeing the body and having a chance to say their goodbyes to the deceased. I can give you a perfect example of this. My sister never believed in viewing a body after death: she thought it was barbaric. When our father died, I felt that it was very important for my mother, who had Alzheimer's, to spend whatever time she wanted with him to help her remember that he was gone. My sister decided to go ahead and see our father and spent about 15 minutes with him. She said that she was so glad she had spent that time "talking" with him. She lived 1500 miles away and had not seen him in several months. That time that she spent "saying goodbye" turned out to be the most valuable part of the funeral for her.

Whether or not your family elects to have viewing is a very personal decision. I have often heard people say that "mother" did not want viewing, so there would be none. If this decision is something with which the entire family is comfortable, that is great. If there are members of the family that feel a need to have viewing, their needs should outweigh those of the deceased. People often elect to have no viewing when preplanning their own funerals because they think it will be easier on the family members. If a family member feels the need to view, then easier is not necessarily better.

Another factor in deciding if viewing is appropriate is the skill of your funeral director. If someone has been in an accident, it might very well be that the funeral home staff can restore the deceased and make viewing a possibility. (Viewing often becomes more important to people in the case of a sudden death, where there was no time to even consider what life would be like after that person was gone.) In the case of an accidental death, it is wise to have one family member view before everyone else and decide if additional work is necessary by the funeral home, if the deceased looks acceptable or if a closed casket is the best option. No matter how many pictures you might have given the funeral director, only a family member will be qualified to make the final decision as to whether the restoration was successful.

I strongly recommend that in any situation where a family is considering viewing that it is wise for the family to arrive before friends are expected and have a private time for themselves. Not only does this give them "family time" together, but it also allows for them to request any changes that might need to be made before the general public arrives. The only way changes can be made is if the funeral director is made aware that they are necessary. Making sure that everything is right is not only better for the family but also protects friends from seeing someone "who does not look like him[self]." ---Steven Moeller

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